Masters Countdown: Third Hole

Papenburg Augusta National’s third hole has probably undergone fewer changes than any other hole on the course. Its principal feature today, as was true in the beginning, is a treacherously shaped green, which sits on a tilted natural plateau. Dropping off from the shallow left end of the green is a deep bunker from which pars can be difficult to save. The green is hard to hit and harder to hold, and approaches to it are complicated by the fact that the putting surface is invisible from the fairway.

In 1933, Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder and chairman, wrote a letter to Alister MacKenzie, who had designed the course, in which he suggested adding a deep cross bunker in the face of the plateau directly in front of the green. “It was my understanding,” Roberts wrote, “that the deep-face trap located in about the center would make this a definite drive and pitch hole; that is to say, a well struck pitch would be required in order to hold the green and the trap would make it impossible to play a run-up shot.” MacKenzie was vehement in vetoing that idea—which Roberts had admitted Jones didn’t support—and his response contains so much of his thinking about design that it is worth quoting at length:

I am delighted that Bob agrees that the [third] with the one trap is all right. This confirms my impression that Bob knows more about golf and its sound principles than any man I have ever come across.

My own opinion is that a cross bunker would convert it into an ordinary stereotyped hole and would nullify all the subtleties of the undulations of the approach to which we gave so much time and thought.

Consider the many problems which face a golfer approaching the hole. In the first place he can play safely to the right and rely on a long putt going dead to get his four. If he elects to go straight at the flag he must play a perfect pitch or else his ball would hit the bank and come back or run over the green. On the other hand if he tries to run up from the right his shot must be played perfectly as a half hearted run up shot will inevitably run into the bunker on the left, which appears to me to be absolutely perfect both in regard to its position and its construction.

At this hole the super golfer, like Bob, has a most fascinating problem, as to have a reasonable chance of three he will have to attack the hole from the left, where all the slopes help him towards the hole. It is here that the tee-shot bunker comes in as he must make up his mind to play round it with a pulled shot from right to left or a fade from left to right, or, when a strong wind is in his favour, to play over it.

If the approach to this hole is maintained as hard and as true as the green it will make the most perfect hole of its length in the world of golf and any additional bunker would ruin it.

It is holes of this description that keep up one’s interest in golf year after year, stimulate players to improve their game and prevent golf becoming stale.

Jones didn’t think as highly of the third hole as MacKenzie did; his favorite par-fours almost all required long-iron or fairway-wood approaches—shots at which he excelled. But MacKenzie’s conviction has been borne out over the years. Of all the architects who have worked on the course, none has yet made a persuasive case for a major revision. (The single original fairway bunker became a cluster of four fairway bunkers in 1983, but the impact on tee shots didn’t change.) The third hole remains the shortest par-four on the course, yet it was one of the few holes that consistently gave Tiger Woods trouble during his record victory in 1997. (On Friday, he hit a bullet-like drive to within fifteen yards of the green, yet made a bogey.) In fact, the experience of Woods and other long-hitting players suggests that one effective way to “Tiger-proof” a golf hole may be to shorten it.


2 thoughts on “Masters Countdown: Third Hole

  1. One of the most compelling things in this entire story is the very last sentence. Augusta’s third has remained mostly untouched because it has always demanded skilled shotmaking, and one simply cannot substitute length for shotmaking skill. Time and again, we see that it is the shorter holes that most bedevil the professionals, be it #3 (or #12, for that matter) at Augusta or the really-short-but-still-not-really-drivable #10 at Riviera. Stretching a hole doesn’t make it harder, and I wish more architects would remember that. Well-designed fairways and green complexes that put a premium on short-game skill trump anybody’s strength and advanced technology.

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